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City Council Finance Committee Chair Richard Clark
Jax Daily Record Monday, Aug. 25, 201412:00 PM EST

Delays, frustration mark latest budget meeting

by: David Chapman

Friday was meant to be a day devoted to reviewing Mayor Alvin Brown’s spending plan for capital projects over next five years.

Instead, it was a wash after a revised Capital Improvement Plan was delivered too late for members of the City Council Finance Committee to analyze. Members last week pointed out discrepancies in project descriptions and figures and sought an accurate plan.

It was emailed to them Thursday evening, with hard copies provide during Friday’s meeting. In all, there were more than 70 alterations to different projects.

“The numbers were wrong … none of it added up,” committee Chair Richard Clark said of the plan.

Clark said that with an entire book amended and receiving it during the meeting, there was no choice but to postpone.

Council member John Crescimbeni said it was “irresponsible” by the administration to not better communicate when the plan would be ready.

Council members during the Aug. 15 meeting listed off several examples of how the capital plan needed changing before a review.

David DeCamp, Brown’s spokesman, said the revised plan was done at the request of council members during that budget meeting and was first delivered Thursday evening via email.

A listing of the changes between the two plans shows are majority have revised project completion dates. Others include changes to budget impacts, descriptions and funding schedules.

With reviewing the plan on hold until later this week, members turned their attention to city borrowing and the banking fund, which is often referred to as the city’s “credit card,” for spending on projects.

Clark sees the city having no debt in 2008 but $800 million now as a huge issue. Taking down debt doesn’t directly affect how general fund dollars are spent, but paying it back annually does. Clark said the city is now “hitting a wall” when it comes to paying back its bills, which is affecting how essential services are covered.

Brown in his latest budget and plan is proposing to borrow more than $230 million.

How council members could reduce that figure could happen this week when the committee jumps back into that project plan. The plan is highlighted by projects like a $43 million Trail Ridge Landfill expansion, $11.8 million Jacksonville Landing renovation and $1 million toward the harbor deepening project.

Clark said it would be “very difficult” to determine how to handle those new projects when other capital priorities established in past years still haven’t been completed.

The rest of Friday was spent drilling down into some technical issues with several departments and funds, but it didn’t go as smoothly as council members wanted. The group repeatedly spent time asking questions with answers that weren’t readily available by department heads or administration members.

For example, a veterinarian in the Regulatory Compliance Department was erroneously eliminated, but getting to the bottom of why took some time to figure out.

Ultimately, the finance department said it was done in error.

That’s the part that frustrates the committee the most, Clark said.

“That’s all we want, that’s all we ever ask,” Clark said. “Concise answers.”

Crescimbeni said he wanted the staff that puts the budget together to be able to answer questions. Instead, he said, the committee spent time on “ridiculous, silly mistakes” on issues like how positions are funded and whether jobs were meant to be cut.

“It’s not up to my satisfaction,” he said of the process.

DeCamp said the administration answers questions as quickly as possible and works with the committee in advance to help. But, he said, it’s not always possible to anticipate every question or demand.

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